Mary Medd: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

5 Nov 2015 - Research

By Yasmin Shariff 5th November 2015

Yasmin Shariff writes about Mary Crowley, a remarkable Modern Movement architect whose work has touched the lives of thousands of children and adults yet her contribution is largely unrecognised, overlooked or subsumed by the man she married, David Medd.  Mary and David worked closely together on pioneering school designs at Hertfordshire County Architects Department before moving to the Ministry of Education Architecture and Building Branch after they were married in 1949.

Mary kept a diary from the age of 10 years till the year she died aged 97. Many of these diaries are now archived in the Institute of Education, a few hundred yards from the Architectural Association (AA) where she trained as an architect from 1927 to 1932. These diaries provide a rich source of information as does Catherine Burke’s  book on Mary Medd A Life in Education and Architecture published by Ashgate in 2013.

Mary was born in Bradford in 1907 into a Quaker family rooted in the idealism and utopian experimentation of Quaker industrialists Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree Ebaneezer Howard’s concept for garden cities. These ideas shaped the 150 acre site model village at New Earlswick near York and the Garden Cities in Letchworth and Welwyn where Mary grew up and lived. Parker and Unwin were commissioned to design New Earlswick and two years later they started work in 1903 on the first Garden City at Letchworth.

Ebaneezer Howard’s Garden City movement was a reaction to the overcrowding and industrial pollution of Victorian cities. He drew on Quaker precedents at Port Sunlight, Bournville and Robert Owen’s ‘Vision for a new society’ – a ‘happy home for many generations of children where they will be brought up amid surroundings that will benefit them spiritually, mentally and physically’.    Mary’s father, Ralph Crowley’ became one of the pioneers of the Garden City Movement and at the heart of this utopian idealism was the education and social welfare of children. Ralph Crowley believed that a ‘doctor cannot fulfil his more specific function of treating bodily diseases, if he is indifferent to the patient’s environmental conditions and his mental and moral welfare.’  Following Ralph’s recruitment to the Board of Education in London in 1908, the family moved from Bradford to the newly founded Garden City in Letchworth, Hertfordshire and then in 1920  to the recently established second Garden City in Welwyn.

When the family moved to Welwyn Garden City in 1921 Mary was sent to Bedales , a pioneering co-educational school founded by John Haden Bradley, which offered a alternative model to traditional English Public Schools. Mary found expression for her talents in drawing, music and art and spent many hours sketching in the (now Grade 1 Listed) Arts and Crafts Library designed by Ernest Gimson with its double height timber structure dramatically top lit like a cathedral clerestory.  After she left Bedales she spent a few months in Switzerland  to improve her French before enrolling at the Architectural Association (AA) in 1927. The following year the RIBA Nomination records show that she gained seven months experience working in the office of the architect of Welwyn Garden City, Louis de Soissons .

AA records show that Mary was a highly conscientious student who managed to get consistently high marks. She took full part in activities including starring roles in the famous AA Pantomimes. She won prizes and scholarships as well as having her work published in the AA Journal. The 1930 issue of the AA Journal that includes Mary’s modernistic rendering of an entrance to a Pottery Offices and Showrooms also shows a range of styles that were being explored from classical An Application of the Orders (Second Year, P Cornit) to modern expressionism Esquisse for an Island Belvedere (Third Year W P Dyson).

One of the most formative experiences of her student life at the AA was the trip to Sweden and Denmark organised by F R Yerbury which set off from St Pancras on 16 July 1930  a few days after she was presented the Third Year Course AA Travelling Studentship for £31.10s . This was a major expedition with 93  students and staff travelling by train and boat to Scandinavia spending two days in Gothenburg, five in Stockholm and four in Copenhagen .  Photographs of the buildings visited were exhibited at the AA from 24 November to 20 December 1930 and a detailed account of the trip was published in the December issue of the AA Journal.  The trip included visits to a number of new innovative schools in Gottenburg by Arvid Bjerke and Gunnar Asplund, and in Stockholm the group saw a new school by Hakon Ahlberg and a technical school by Eric Lallerstedt containing a fountain by Carl Milles. The main highlight of the tour was the newly completed Stockholm Town Hall and Asplund’s Paradiset Restaurant in the Stockholm Exhibition. The exhibition’s slogan was Acceptera!, or Accept!, literally a plea for acceptance of functionalism, standardization, and mass production as a cultural change. It also underlined the social and economic basis of the architecture designed, revealing the architect as ‘a worker in the service of the broad masses of the community.’

The trip to Scandinavia was seminal- students including Oliver Hill, Nora and Betty Aiton as well as Mary all went on to design exemplary Modern Movement buildings. Modernism could no longer be ignored and Goodhart-Rendel’s address to the AA General Meeting on 23 February 1931, when Mary was in her fourth year, gives an insight into the debates around stylistic attitudes: ‘I believe that much of our advanced architecture is in danger of being strangled by style-consciousness….I think that I recognise in most of the best recent architecture of France and in some parts of  Scandinavia and Germany a modern real style that has evolved naturally from changing practice in construction and changing fancies in ornament. …In more backward countries the modern style is conceived of as a style of pure negation, its aesthetic weakness bolstered up by mechanical theory or unintelligible philosophy.’

Mary’s 1931 fourth year project for An Institute of Archaeology, published in the February issue of the AA Journal,  look remarkably like the 1934 RIBA Headquarters which was influenced by Östberg’s Town Hall and Asplund’s City Library in Stockholm.  In her final year, 1932, she has two of her projects published in the AA Journal- A British Centre for Arts and Sciences in France 15 kilometres from Paris on the banks of the Seine  and her thesis subject which was An Educational Centre for a Town of 25,000 Inhabitant’ . The education centre is remarkably futuristic with curtain walling along one elevation and Scandinavian style Modernist treatment on the other. In this final thesis she mentions the school system of Gary, Indiana (that her father had visited in 1913) and the first of Henry Morris’ village colleges in Sawston (the precursor to Gropius’s Impington). Mary left the AA at the top of her class- winning the highly coveted medal from the Société des Architects Diplômés par le Governement, Paris- a prize for the best Diploma student of the session and she was also awarded the Henry Florence Travelling Studentship (£50) .

Mary was entering a profession at a time of great political and social change. She was not eligible to vote until she entered her second year at the AA when Parliament passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act on 2 July 1928. In this same period war was on the horizon and waves of emigres were flocking into London including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Erich Mendelsohn, Erno Goldfinger, Arthur Korn and László Moholy-Nagy from Germany, and the Russian architects Serge Chermayeff and Berthold Lubetkin.

After leaving the AA Mary worked with Erno Goldfinger on several projects including his own house which was part of a terrace of three units in Willow Road, Hamsted. Goldfinger moved to London in 1934 after marrying an English artist he met in Paris, Ursulla Blackwell (who came from the Crosse and Blackwell food group). Mary worked on Goldfinger’s group of three houses in Willow Road, Hampsted. Also in 1934 Mary started working independently on another group of three houses at Sewell’s Orchard, Tewin for her parents, her sister Elfrida and brother-in-law  (Elfrida married architect Cecil Kemp who became the Chief architect to the Miners Welfare Commission and responsible for the innovative design of the pithead baths), and a third house for the Miall family who were also Quakers .

The two projects are very different. The Goldfinger houses are a red brick, split level terrace of town houses with a spiral staircase linking the multi levels in an urban context whilst the Tewin houses are a group of modern ‘villa’ in the countryside on 1 ½ acres of land. It is difficult to see what Mary contributed to the Goldfinger terrace but Sewell Orchard was entirely under her control and helped by Brandon Jones and Kemp.

The three houses in Tewin are radically different to anything else in the area. The mono-pitch buff brick structures look deceptively simple. The influence on the design was Scandinavian and drew on the 1930 trip to Sweden and Denmark , Every detail has been carefully thought through especially in relation to the services and the control of sun, light and air.  The upper floor bathrooms are grouped together with a concrete floor to cope with any leaks or future failures; the ironmongery on the windows allow for  the full extent of the windows to be opened without any dividing frames and all the rooms have natural controllable air vents. The internal arrangement on the ground floor with sliding doors creates a flexible space which can be used for intimate dining or open plan parties.  The shared gardens maintained a sense of the open countryside and a pond was designed to store rainwater. A simple return on the south facing façade gives each house a sense of enclosure and privacy. Completed in 1936, the Sewell Orchard houses were included in an exhibition at the Building Centre and published alongside houses by other great Modern Movement architects such as Breuer, Yorke, Goldfinger, Lubetkin, Lescaze , Chermayeff and others in F R S Yorke’s book The Modern House in England published in 1937, a remarkable achievement and testament to her ability as an architect.

Mary continued to collaborate with Goldfinger and worked on a series of projects for the French toy makers Abbats and a project for a prototype prefabricated expanding nursery school commissioned by the Nursery Schools Association in 1934 . (A sketch of the design is held by the RIBA Drawings and Archive Collections.)  This project led no doubt to her involvement in the nursery school at Kensal House designed by Maxwell Fry. Kensal House, completed in 1937, was an innovative modern development financed by the Gas Light and Coke Company for re-housing slum dwellers. The dramatic curve of the nursery school creates a dynamic geometry and sense of place. There are many similarities with the prototype she had designed a few years earlier for the Nursery Schools Association, particularly the use of top lights and sliding folding doors that merge inside and outside spaces. Mary was also involved in Goldfinger’s ‘The Child Exhibit’ at the 1937 British Pavilion at the Exposition International des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne designed by Oliver Hill (a fellow student who had also gone on the AA trip to the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930).

In the following years between 1938-40 just before the onset of World War 2, Mary and fellow student Anne Parker worked with Goldfinger on designs for evacuation, school and holiday camps . In 1940 she collaborated with another AA student Justin Blanco White and Goldfinger on prefabricated industrial housing design run by the RIBA.

In 1941 John Newson, the Chief Education Officer at Hertfordshire, offered her a job to work in the Hertfordshire County Council’s Education Department.  There was an urgent need to help schools make arrangements for the mandatory requirement to feed school children- something her father had campaigned for. She worked with Paul Mauger on the project which mainly focused on providing facilities for cooking in small village schools. This also gave Mary an opportunity to speak to teachers about education ideas. She kept up with the ideas of Henry Morris on the village schools in Cambridgeshire through John Newson and her father.

The Hertfordshire Architects’ Department was set up in 1946 after the war and C H Aslin was appointed as the chief architect with Stirrat Johnson-Marshall his deputy. Aslin was the son of a steelworker and worked in Sheffield and Rotherham prior to his appointment in 1929 as Borough Architect for Derby. He introduced the concept of pre-fabricated construction techniques to meet the urgent demand for new schools in the post-war baby booming years . Mary was asked to join the department but she had reservations and serious considered becoming a housemistress at Bedales.   Fortunately for British Modernism Mary finally agreed to join the group in 1946 after a six month break in Norway where she celebrated her 40th birthday.

Mary was a key member of the pioneering Hertfordshire Architects Department which soon became internationally famous for its progressive school designs.  In the three years that followed, her work on schools as part of the Hertfordshire team, brought together many revolutionary strands including consideration of the child as the most important client, the influence of modernism, the impact of industrialisation on building design (ie the development of pre-fabricated systems) and developments in pedagogy that transformed regimented and institutionalised Victorian classrooms to free thinking open planned flexible layouts.  These light and airy structures were built at a time of austerity when labour and building materials were in short supply and the demand for schools was at an all-time high with ten new schools needed annually .

The Hertfordshire Architects Department worked very much as a team and whilst Mary is not singled out it is possible to see her influence in the early schools including Essondon Village School (completed in 1948 the year before she left), Templewood School Welwyn Garden City and Aboyne Lodge Primary School.  The stepped plan creating semi-enclosed external spaces, clerestory windows, open plan layouts, integrated outdoor/indoor planning and the dramatic use of artwork are all hallmarks of her work and can be seen to run through into her later projects such as Finmere School and Eveline Lowe School.

An article in the 1952 June issue of the Architectural Review by Richard Llewelyn Davies and John Weeks entitled ‘The Hertfordshire Achievement’ aptly describes the significance of what was being achieved by Mary and the rest of the team: ‘the work of those pioneer architects of whose theoretical and experimental work is the most dramatic realization yet to be seen in this country.’ In the same June 1952 issue Aslin mapped out the Modernist influences of the Hertfordshire school designs which included Le Corbusier, Asplund, DeStijl and the work of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus.

In 1949 she married a fellow team member at Hertfordshire, David Medd, ten years her junior, whom she had first met in Erno Goldfinger’s office in 1938.  The Medds left Hertfordshire County Architects to join Stirrat Marshall-Johnson  (who had been Aslin’s deputy) at the newly founded Architects and Building Branch (A&BB) at the Ministry of Education in 1949. Modernist design of post-war British schools is largely due to the power and influence of the A&BB and the work of the Medds. Mary focused on ideas about child development, welfare and education and these went hand in hand with buildings designed to provide fresh air, sun, light, air and a connection with nature and art. Mary’s child centric philosophy is very well articulated in Catherine Burke’s book with detailed accounts of some of the key thinking and development in planning, structure, use of materials, furniture layouts, colour, texture and the relationship with outdoor spaces. Usefully there is an appendix listing projects and project architects. The schools were built on very limited budgets but they were high on aspiration and ambition. Many of the schools received great acclaim with study tours, publications, films and exhibitions and articles in several languages.

In 1958 David Medd received a Harkness scholarship to spend a year in the USA to study educational buildings. Mary was allowed to join him and they embarked on a 36,000 mile journey starting from Cambridge, Massachusetts and returned to England from Montreal, visiting schools and seeing many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in and around Chicago, taking notes and all the way!

The Medd’s expertise was much sought after internationally and they travelled extensively throughout their married lives. America and the Scandinavian countries and Holland continue to play a significant role in developing and testing their ideas. Mary left the Ministry of Education in 1972 after a disagreement over plans for a new primary school following tensions which had developed over child centred planning and more traditional models of education- a change which was adopted by a series of education secretaries beginning with Margret Thatcher in 1970. Mary continued to work on schools after her ‘retirement’ from the Ministry and helped plan primary schools in Wales. Her work continues to influence school design and together with her husband David Medd she wrote the key standards and guidance used in school building and furniture design including the Building Bulletins.    After Mary ‘retired’ in 1972 the Medds were invited to work in Oman and Iran. In the 1990s the Medds were commissioned by the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) to prepare reports on schools In Karachi, Kenya and Uganda and develop teacher training facilities. Their writings are extensive and much of it is held at the Institute of Education including publications on Colour in Schools, Lighting and Equipment, Primary Bases, Furniture and work on schools and education across the board.

My personal encounter with Mary Medd was at a charity garden party at Sewell’s Orchard where I had designed an extension for the Kemp House. Mary was a quiet and unassuming and to my great relief gave me a seal of approval to the alterations I had made to her original design. More recently, working on designs for a dozen new academies has given me the opportunity to explore Mary’s ideas on pedagogy and school design. Her ideas and architectural designs are still fresh and relevant today where children are important clients and space and light flow seamlessly and poetically, impassioning hearts and inspiring minds for those who care to see.

Share this article

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website.